Steve Almond is that rarest of literary players: a humorist who can go deep both politically and philosophically, as comfortable bashing the latest Maroon 5 album as he is exploring regular people’s darkest moments, or, a few years back, stepping toe-to-toe with odious troll Sean Hannity over the minor moral issue of our government lying to us.
His books range from a history of US chocolate addiction (Candyfreak), to a collection of music journalism (Rock And Roll Will Save Your Life), to his latest heap of short stories (semi-ironically titled God Bless America) that get into darker, more desperate territory than any of his earlier stuff. Running throughout his work is a sense of humor both sharper and more profane than the genteel literary sarcasm of the New Yorker or NPR–more hysterical than chuckly, more of a OOOOhhhSHIIIIIITHAHAHHA than a *teehee*. He’s from a generation that found their voice before the web, but managed to make many corners of it perfect homes for their incendiary thoughts, which he has done with his posts at the Rumpus, Salon, Babble, and so on and so forth.
He’s going to be reading tonight at the Black Squirrel, and he’ll read some stories, and he’ll read some hilarious letters from Letters From People Who Hate Me and maybe he’ll read from his incredible first story collection My Life In Heavy Metal which legitimately changed my life when I read it in 2002. So go see him.
Now that I’ve got that introduction stuff out of the way let me explain what this article is really about. Steve Almond is a bad-ass motherfucker. I’ve met him, at a literary conference, and he’s totally fearless and charismatic as all hell. The only thing holding him back from being the president of something right now is an equally obvious dedication to telling the truth, and the bitter knowledge that the truth is: We’re all fucked. We are so fucked. I mean right now. This used to be a lot funnier, but now the shit is just crazy. We are super-, duper-, pooper-fucked. God Bless America is such an amazing title because it’s both a serious prayer to whatever might be listening and an bitter last gasp as the buildings are cracking and the sewage is pouring up out of the drain. While Palahniuk broods, Klosterman whines and Hornby looks embarrassed and whistles, Steve Almond is cracking his knuckles and digging in to see what’s really at the bottom of this pile. Let’s get into it.
Steve Almond: I’m in Philly right now. Taking the train down tomorrow. Actually the last time I was in DC, this is so sad, it was when, during the 2008 election, when McCain suspended his campaign to come to DC, as if really needed to do that. But the reason I remember it is even more humiliating and awful because I read at this great book store…and had a great time, and literally the next day it closed.
BYT: Oh snap, was it Olsson’s Books and Records?
SA: Yup. That was it. It was the most awesome thing. “Thanks everybody for coming out here and thanks for supporting local bookstores…” and the next day I read “Olsson’s Closes.” “Steve Almond Reading Shuts Them Down.”
BYT: So you’re to blame. I knew it! Maybe it’s because of all the pyrotechnics and explosions at your readings?
SA: Yeah man. Look if legal can’t get their shit together I just can’t perform! But yeah it was just a regular reminder of how sad and small your world is. “If that’s what we have to suffer through let’s just shut it down.” Harsh.
BYT: That didn’t happen at the last time I saw you, which was almost 10 years ago at a Writer’s Conference in Tennessee.
SA: Yeah, that place is wonderful. Conferences are great places to read, where people really give you their attention freely, and I was honored to be able to give a keynote there.
BYT: Well, what I remember about you from back then, besides your writing, is going to the very stuffy and professorial cocktail hours and dinners after the readings and everyone would be wearing tweed blazers or whatever and you would always be rocking the white v-neck and jeans and flip flops. Are you still dressing down?
SA: Dude, I had an old girlfriend, (emphasis on the “Old”) who will no longer be seen with me; she was so funny. I showed up for some date, and she was so beautiful it was embarrassing to go places with her, probably we were going to a nice restaurant or something, and she goes, “Oh. Hey. Another tattered V-neck sweater. Like every other single fucking time we ever went out.” So that was that. I think it’s just from coming of age at a time where the thing was not caring what you looked like. Other people eventually realized it’s nice to get dressed up, it’s nice to show people that you care about your appearance and get spiffed up. I just never got that. I’m going to keep it real man, keep it punk rock! Plus you know [that writer’s conference]…it’s a pretty self-important little set-up they’ve got down there, with the private functions for the faculty where only the chosen can go. Plus I was a little uncomfortable because when I was there one of my friends was the only African-American at the conference. And I was so self-involved I didn’t even notice ’til I was talking to her going “Oh I love talking about writing with all these writers…” and she says “I feel a little weird” and I’m like “Uh what’s the matter? Why?”I didn’t have a clue.
BYT: As I’ve followed your career it’s always seemed like an apt metaphor for your work’s place in the literary scene though. You’re at the highbrow party, but wearing the tattered v-neck in the room of bad ties and elbow patches. If you know what I mean?
SA: Sure. But…generalizing, writers and the community of writers are all lonely and narcissistic people. I know I am. We all want to be in the room. Nobody becomes a writer because they has SUCH a great High School experience. Like they were so popular and their families totally got them. They weren’t in the room, and they want to be. I know what you’re saying but…I think the ultimate thing is who’s doing the deepest human work. I don’t think I’ve done as much as some of those people in that room. I don’t care what they dress like or how they conduct themselves. They might be total assholes. But they sit at the keyboard and they do the work. Saul Bellow may not have been the best guy to be at a party with, he might be a snob or something I don’t know. He did the work when he was sitting in front of his typewriter. In the end, history sniffs out the phonies. I haven’t written any great books, though I’m really proud of certain parts of all my books, but I don’t deserve to be in the top tier of writers. It would be an insult to them and the work they’ve done to walk around like I’m better than the folks in that room.
BYT: That may be true from a writer’s perspective, but as a reader I would much rather read one of your books about rock and roll, or funny short stories about real people, than some long-winded struggle of oppression or post-modern footnote fest about a rich families struggle to….do whatever.
SA: I know what you mean. I’m not as interested in stuff either that’s about anomnie or failure to connect. I live in a culture and here’s the stuff that’s happening in the culture: people have sex and a lot of feelings about sex, and they have thoughts and doubts and worries and ecstasies. And let’s not pretend that that’s not what being human is, and let’s write about it! Duh. And these other sorts of pleasures, candy, and rock and roll– they all have meaning. Nothing is inherently superficial. Paris Hilton, or whatever the latest one is, Kim Kardashian, despite her best efforts, has a deep and complex and tortured internal life. It’s not her job to get that across–like everybody else she’s trying to trick her brain to not feel unbearable things. But artists who write about her or anything, that’s their job. I like the fact that my books can reach readers, especially young readers, who may not be big readers. I’m cool with being the gateway drug to literature for them to say “I can read this book, it’s about Candy!” At the same time I don’t want to confuse that with having a stance against literature. Henry James is not an author I would read because I’m not a good enough reader, but I would never say he isn’t an unbelievably brilliant artist because I don’t have the concentration to read it.
BYT: I haven’t read your new book because I’m an asshole.
SA: You’ll like it. It’s pretty dark though. Just so you know, there is some funny stuff because that’s how I process tragedy, but still… a lot of people have told me it is pretty dark.
BYT: It’s a dark time. Part of what I’ve always admired about you is how I can look at the people who win the literary awards and teach in the big universities and say: Those people have never seen a really bad day. You I believe have actually been through or been around something like what regular folks are going through these days rather than “Oh my wife cheated on me at the yacht club and my rich Boston dad has a dreadful secret.” Clearly I don’t read a lot of literary fiction anymore, but anyway…
SA: One thing that comes through on this book is that, for my earlier collections I was not a married guy, and now I am and I have two kids. It still comes out of my own mishegoss, and I’m still trying to use humor to look at the most unbearable stuff. But my concerns have changed. As they should I guess. If the stories are more serious it’s because I have more skin in the game, two little fragile people to look after. This species is killing itself, and the United States is at the forefront of the suicidal behavior. We’re suicidally greedy, suicidally selfish–the idea that we’re talking about whether or not to care for our sick in some sort of political game…it just keeps getting more fucked up.
BYT: Oh yeah.
SA: So if that stuff is making it into the book– anxieties about the economy, the tolls of really being a country that is at war, in the sense that when we send a bunch of young people into morally chaotic out-of-control violent settings they are not going to come back all roses, ready for you to wave a flag in their face, done processing the experience–I am trying to write about that stuff. Not trying to be didactic, but that is the world we live in. Even if all your channels are turned off, you still have to run into these kids in a airport, and you know they’re not coming back from some cute diplomatic junket, and you realize that they’re coming back to culture where people freak out if that have to wait in line for five minutes at the ice-cream parlor. I do hope that my political disappointment and anger aren’t infecting the stories, though I know my editor Ben George wouldn’t let them do that. They are well-crafted stories about people going through these experiences. And I don’t mean the title to be ironic, like [snarky voice]”Rawwr Godbless America Rawwwr what a crock.” I want to believe that. I do think that America is the greatest country on Earth. We’re just another one of these phases where we have to start living up to our ideals. Like Abolition or Suffrage or Civil Rights. We can do it, lets’ agree to be more generous and less worshipful of convenience, and we can do it.
BYT: Are you one of these people who feel totally let down by the current administration? It seems like everyone on the left has Post-Xmas depression right now… did that contribute to the tone of the book? WHERE IS THE HOPE MAN?
SA: Hahaha well none of this is in the book. It’s very personal, some of the stories are about people my parents age. It’s all very much from my personal filter: what am I obsessing about, what am I circling around. But as to the political feeling right now, I do hate it when people are like the left feels this, the left feels that. It’s very basic, there are some people who want us to be a more compassionate, less greedy, less darwinian culture. And in the abstract that’s most of us. And then there are very powerful forces that are about the darker side of being a human: greed, anger, revenge, and denial. A lot of what drives what is happening on the right is a powerful sense of denial. It’s like the unreliable narrator is in command, Humbert Humbert or someone like that. The right knows how to appeal to people in their emotions, and the left don’t know how to do that right now…even with the Occupy Wall Street folks, which is a purely emotional movement, the media keeps saying that they need a list of demands and a leader as if everything has to be structured like a hierarchy to be taken seriously… So I am hopeful, but I am also pissed the fuck off. I would like Barack Obama to stand up and express moral outrage at the completely fuckedup cruel values that are being shoved down people’s throats. We need someone to stand up and be the big tough daddy, as sure of the rightness of standing up to this childish and destructive behavior as George Bush was of his psychopathic, ill-thought-out nonsense. The moment calls for that, and he’s just not delivering on it right now.
BYT: That reminds me of that article you wrote for Salon, reviewing Glen Beck and other Republican writing as if it was post-modern literature. It’s weird how much political arguments remind me of arguing with annoying deconstructionists in college–it just becomes impossible to debate someone when they keep shifting the ground and refusing to agree on the meanings of words and the fundamental truth of anything you want to posit. It sort of means you can’t fight them at their own game because then you fall into the murk of lies but it’s hard to hold the high ground because the murk keeps creeping up the…pedestal? In this analogy you’re standing on a pedestal in a swamp I guess.
SA: It’s true, you cannot ever catch them out. They’ll just change the facts, like in the Sean Hannity dust up I got into. Don’t you think you would want to talk to your guest about your guest’s evidence that the Secretary of State lied to get us into a war? You’d think that would happen on that kind of show. But hey, “You voted for Kerry so you’re a liberal so of course you’re just partisan” is all they wanted to talk about. And once they realized I wasn’t going to play ball, two minutes of the fifteen minutes they said I would be on, they pulled me off the air.
BYT: It’s like the stupid lazy joke about bongo drums that people keep making about the Occupy protests. Sure, OK, there are some hippies there. What else is going on? Do they have a point? Can we talk about that?
SA: Nobody wants to talk about morality. I’ve got kids, and they go to the playground. The playground is a place where no parent is like “Hey my kid deserves that toy! Don’t cut into my kid’s time on the swing!” Any parent who said that would be regarded as a complete fucking asshole. We all know the kids have to share and take turns to make it a collectively better environment. And that’s socialism. What you teach your kids on the playground is socialism. The terms of the debate are so warped and distorted at this point, it’s heartbreaking. It kind of drives me to madness.
BYT: And on that note….thanks for talking to me Steve!
SA: Ha! Well you know at the readings I will read fun stuff from my books and I promise your readers I will not politically rant for a long time like I’ve been doing here.
BYT: It’s cool, I’m cutting all that out.
BYT: I’m just going to replace it with the phrase God Bless America 1000 times.
SA: That will make my publisher happy.
BYT: God, Bless America?
SA: God Bless: America.
God Bless America. Come to the revival tent tonight, Wednesday the 26th, at the Black Squirrel.